Friday, 13 February 2015

Songs of Free Men

A remarkable cover from a collection of Paul Robeson 78s which has just come into the Oxfam Music and Art shop where I work, vintage dust and all. Released in 1943, the illustration explicitly connects the struggle for civil rights in America with the fight against fascism in Europe. Robeson throws off his chains and plunges a dagger into the heart of the Nazi worm. Robeson sings the Spanish Republican (here refererred to as Loyalist) song The Four Insurgent Generals; Moorsoldaten (The Peat-Bog Soldiers), an anthem of the International Brigades originally written in 1933 by German dissidents in a concentration camp, and here arranged by sometime Brecht collaborator Hanns Eisler; the US song about union activist and martyr Joe Hill (sung by Joan Baez at Woodstock); two songs from Russian composer Ivan Dzerzhinsky's opera Quiet Flows the Don; The Purest Kind of Guy from No For An Answer, a musical about unemployed Greek workes by Marc Blitztein. Blitztein was a gay Jewish composer perhaps best known today for his 1937 pro-union musical The Cradle Will Rock, directed by Orson Welles, the chaotic Broadway production history of which was recently dramatised in Tim Robbins' film of that name. And Native Land by Jewish-Russian composer Isaak Dunayevsky, a favourite of Stalin's, apparently. He composed the soundtrack for Volga-Volga, a broad 1938 comedy rumoured to be Uncle Joe's favourite film. It was important at this time that Robeson performed songs by political dissidents, Jewish composers and gay writers (Blitztein made no secret about his sexuality). Robeson sings the Spanish, German and Russian songs both in English and the native language. The forthright cover image makes it clear that Columbia were wholly behind his selection. It would be unthinkable that they would release such a collection 10 years later, by which time McCarthyism was well under way and he was being investigated by the HUAC (House Unamerican Activities Committee) and was denied a passport to travel abroad to perform. It should also be said that he was still fulsome in his praise of Stalin at this point.
So, an absolutely fascinating piece of history.

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